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Film: ‘Mission Mangal’

Director: Jagan Shakti

Cast: Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Taapsee Pannu, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari, Akshay Kumar, Sharman Joshi and HG Dattreyya

Stars: 3 out of 5

Launching a budget-friendly satellite into Mars is no rocket science or so you want to believe after watching ‘Mission Mangal’, Bollywood’s latest science film that breaks down complex outer space theories into palatable nuggets sprinkled with drama, thrills and wit.

Mission Mangal’ is the cinematic equivalent of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ — the hit Western TV series about a bunch of nerdy oddballs — propelled by a dazzling group of talented and cerebral women from Bollywood.

The gender swap makes ‘Mission Mangal’ highly engaging as Vidya Balan — the India National Award-winning actress and the more experienced artist from the talented lot — takes charge from the word go.

Her turn as the workaholic Tara Shinde — who isn’t a great homemaker but a terrific, earnest scientist — is endearing.

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Even though Akshay Kumar, Bollywood’s go-to matinee idol for patriotic and nationalist films, is her boss, Balan proves to be his boss lady. She is in cracking form as the sprightly sari-clad matriarch.

The way in which she gamely shepherds a motley group of scientists to execute a near-impossible space mission to Mars makes for some delightful viewing.

‘Mission Mangal’ is the fictionalised account of India’s successful mission of sending their satellite to Mars by Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists and technicians. The Mars Orbitor Mission (MOM) may have taken painstaking research, but director Shakti simplifies it brutally. All those home-science theories of how to make the perfect poori on a gas stove, while saving fuel, being applied to a space mission feels over-simplified. Can collective passion, drive, ambition and good-heartedness translate into successful space operations?

While the answer may evade us, the back stories of the women scientists in this film are largely interesting.

The women do their bits to perfection.

Sonakshi Sinha as a scientist yearning to work for Nasa in the US, Taapsee Pannu as an army man’s devout wife and Nithya Menen as a pregnant woman with a vicious mother-in-law breathe life into their characters with their restrained performances. Kirti Kulhari as Neha Siddiqui, a Muslim divorcee, makes a point about the discrimination she faces while trying to rent a home in Bengaluru — but all of those progressive elements are strictly superficial in the film.

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Also be warned, there are a few scenes such as the one where the women bash up a bunch of violent young men on a metro late at night, as Bollywood’s action hero Akshay Kumar cowers, feels contrived.

Another factor that will work in this film’s favour is its superb timing of the release. Just as you are feeling pop patriotic on India’s Independence Day, here comes a science film that celebrates the scientific feat of India. There’s another hero who’s happy to be in the shadows here.

Let’s all take a moment to thank Kumar for taking the back seat in ‘Mission Mangal’. Although he’s the head of the Isro Mars Mission team, he doesn’t attempt to grab the limelight from the women. While he does a good job, he falters when it comes to some of the comic scenes.

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The part in which he takes on his yuppie Nasa-adoring boss (an efficient Dalip Tahil) by pretending to talk to our late former Indian President and scientist APJ Abdul Kalam is downright juvenile. But he does well in other emotionally-charged scenes — his strong, commanding presence steers this women-led film to the finish line. Actor Sharman Joshi — as the ageing, superstitious virgin — acts as a sturdy foil. Sanjay Kapoor as Vidya Balan’s unsatisfied husband is spot on.

While the women shine, the scenes that are orchestrated to underline their growing camaraderie feels forced. The climax which shows the current Indian Prime Minister hailing India’s accomplishment was an overt nod to stoking nationalistic fervour, but that shouldn’t stop you from watching a film that has its share of highs.

‘Mission Mangal’ is an out-of-this-world cinematic experience, but there’s a good chance that you will pivot around the women’s skills in this film.